The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The young United States’ manifest uncertainty

A statue of President Andrew Jackson, who supported slavery and mistreated Native Americans, stands in Lafayette Square near the White House. (Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this review misquoted Rep. William Wick. He said “unless they be slaves,” not “unless they be enslaved people.” This review has been corrected.

Starting in the early 19th century, generations of Americans were taught a soothing story about their country’s origins. In this narrative, the 13 colonies were merely the gestational stage of the revolutionary nation that would be born in 1776. The new nation strode across the continent, the torch of liberty in its hand and the winds of history and Providence at its back. Whatever challenges and temporary setbacks the nation faced, the story was essentially upbeat.

In reality, our federation originated as a contractual agreement among 13 disparate and distrustful rebel colonies facing a common enemy. Rather than a nation-state, the founders had established an awkward and uncertain alliance. They aimed not just to fend off external enemies but also to prevent war among the states themselves — which proved to be a real challenge.

Understanding these unstable foundations is essential to making sense of our past and present, from the regional divisions that bedevil today’s politics to the tensions between the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the white-supremacist practices that followed.

Alan Taylor, the distinguished University of Virginia historian, has spent his career upending the conventional story in favor of the more sordid and useful truth. He’s written on the machinations of aristocratic land barons in 18th-century Maine and self-made ones in Upstate New York; the struggles along the U.S.-Canada border in the aftermath of the revolution and during the War of 1812; and the history of enslaved people and slavery in Virginia, which made him a National Book Award finalist and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history.

His latest, “American Republics,” a refreshing survey of our country’s tumultuous early years, forms a trilogy with two earlier works, “American Colonies” (2001) and “American Revolutions” (2016). Together they represent an enormous contribution, distilling an ocean of historical scholarship into a thoughtful and compelling narrative of three centuries of the American experience.

Covering the period from the end of the revolution in 1783 to 1850, “American Republics” traces the United States’ expansion across the continent through wars and land acquisitions. As with the other books in the trilogy, Taylor shifts his frame of reference to see events from multiple vantages: British, French and Spanish; Canadian, Mexican and Haitian; Seminole, Cherokee and Metis; enslaved people and abolitionists; women’s rights campaigners and Spanish-speaking Tejanos. A survey can go only so deep, but Taylor strives to make his widely representative without losing the narrative momentum that leaves readers with a big-picture takeaway.

The takeaway is that this era of conquest and expansion was a time of anguish and acrimony for U.S. leaders — manifest uncertainty — and terrible tragedy for many of the continent’s inhabitants. In an effort to achieve security for its White citizens — to protect them from imperial rivals, native nations and enslaved-person uprisings — the United States aggressively expanded. The effort instead triggered the Civil War, as the balance of power between slave and free states became impossible to maintain.

The United States started in a position of weakness, Taylor writes, “built on an unstable foundation of rival regions and an ambiguous constitution.” The Founding Fathers voiced deep anxieties about these divisions: that playing one state against another would “become the Sport of European politics” (in George Washington’s view), or that the states would separate, “only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats” (in Ben Franklin’s). Many observers expected that the country would collapse into what John Jay called “three or four independent and probably discordant republics or confederacies” backed by rival European empires.

To ease these tensions, the Constitution accepted slavery and restricted the powers of states. This didn’t help matters in the long run. After ratification, Congress denied trial by jury and habeas corpus protections to Blacks in free states who were accused of being runaway enslaved people, effectively permitting kidnappings. (“ ‘We the people,’ ” a Georgia congressman explained when free Blacks protested, “does not mean them.”) By the 1830s, Southern leaders such as James Henry Hammond, who served as governor and senator for South Carolina, called for Northern states to extradite abolitionists for trial and execution. President Andrew Jackson had ordered U.S. post offices to impound all anti-slavery materials. A gag rule tabling every petition that discussed slavery effectively prevented members of Congress from debating the issue.

Nor was the United States spreading freedom across the continent, as many Americans liked to imagine. Spain had freed its enslaved people in Florida and given them political rights, but the United States reversed both on acquiring the territory; it also banned interracial marriage and ordered free Blacks to leave or face reenslavement. The exercise was repeated in Texas — Taylor notes that the short-lived Lone Star Republic was the continent’s most proslavery regime — and in Louisiana free Blacks lost many of the rights they had under French rule. Native peoples lost most everything: sovereignty, land, civil rights and, more often than not, their lives.

White-supremacist violence is a constant presence in the book, from Jackson murdering native chiefs at peace talks, to the Texas Rangers slaughtering Comanche women and children, to the Donner party first killing and eating their native guides before turning to their own dead for sustenance. The United States didn’t annex all of Mexico after occupying its capital in 1847, primarily because of racism: “I do not want any mixed races in our Union, nor any color except white,” Rep. William Wick of Indiana explained, “unless they be slaves.”

For Americans used to the comforting myth of an exceptional union boldly leading humanity in a better direction, this account may sting. Taylor doesn’t seek to salve such pain, but neither has he written a polemic. Diligently researched, engagingly written and refreshingly framed, “American Republics” is an unflinching historical work that shows how far we’ve come toward achieving the ideals in the Declaration — and the deep roots of the opposition to those ideals.

American Republics

A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850

Alan Taylor

W.W. Norton

544 pp. $35

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